Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Eleanor and Park

By Rainbow Rowell

Young adult books often get a bad rap, especially young adult romance. Infamous series like Twilight come to represent the whole body of young adult literature, obscuring true gems of the genre that could stand up to any critical test of quality. Case in point: Eleanor and Park.

Big, redheaded, and garbed in unapologetically outlandish outfits, Eleanor is a walking target for high school ridicule. Park, a good-looking, comic-book-and-music-loving Korean kid, is an expert at flying under the radar. His possession of the last single seat on the bus lands him Eleanor as a seatmate when she starts school late after returning from exile by her abusive alcoholic of a stepfather. It sounds like the set-up for a Hollywood-grade meet-cute, but this is the first of many expectations of the convention that Rowell will flout throughout the novel. Eleanor and Park’s relationship begins quirkily with her reading comic books over Park’s shoulder on rides to and from school, which soon births a system of Eleanor borrowing comics each night to finish and return the next morning. The comics give Eleanor an escape from her tense and oppressive home environment – sharing her bedroom with several younger siblings, living in fear of a volatile stepfather, deprived by poverty of basic comforts and necessities – long before they ever even begin to talk, and the growing connection with Park soon becomes a lifeline.

With Eleanor and Park, Rowell enters that infamously far-fetched realm of teenage romance and reifies it. Their relationship is sweet, awkward, and authentic; it’s romantic but not romanticized, realistic but not belittling. Eleanor and Park’s feelings are real, but the world is not kind to them; forces from school bullies to bullying stepfathers conspire to interfere at nearly every turn. It’s their strength of character and commitment to their feelings that keeps them together, and that – more than any sappy, happy ending (don’t expect one here) – is what gives this book so much heart. Rowell’s almost lyrical descriptions, as perceptive as they are creative, are frosting on the cake – both sensual enough to cause butterflies and earnest enough to strike a chord of truth.

Literature is an exercise in empathy, but it is also an exercise in self-discovery. Never, arguably, is this function more important than in YA, whose readers by definition have such limited ranges of their own experience to draw on yet are in such a rich period of exploration and growth. Literature, for them, offers an opportunity to enter a realm in which they can explore, witness, and learn from experience without threat of consequence. Eleanor and Park successfully provides such opportunity. The story enthralls while portraying an authenticity of experience from which readers can glean meaningful new understanding about what it is like to be young and in love, to be both underdog and outsider, and to stay steady in an unstable home environment. There are no false notes in Rowell’s treatment of Eleanor’s harsh home life (which could easily slip into the melodramatic), the sense of “us versus the world” Eleanor and Park feel at school and at home, or the star-crossed-lovers-esque drama of their fight to be together. At turns heartwarming and heart wrenching, Eleanor and Park will make young adults yearn and adults nostalgic for the inimitable tumult of first love.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Silhouette of a Sparrow

By Molly Beth Griffin

Four Things I Liked About Silhouette of a Sparrow:
1. Setting/time period
2. Character-driven plot
3. Garnet’s silhouettes
4. Coming of age

I felt an affinity for this book before I even read it. For one, it’s published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit publisher in Minneapolis, close to where I go to school. I like that Minneapolis has such a rich and productive literary community, all too uncommon outside of NYC. For another, the author and I share the same first name. According to a recent psychology lecture I attended, we are naturally predisposed to prefer things that even contain the letters in our name. So can’t blame me for liking something that contains the whole thing! ;)

It’s 1926 and Garnet Richardson is being exiled to the lake to limit her exposure to the polio epidemic endangering the city. Unlike many a disgruntled exiled heroine before her, she thrills at the freedom the lake resort and its nearby amusement park offers her. She dreams of a summer of fun and independence before she returns to an engagement and her final year of high school in the fall, after which she’ll be expected to settle down with her nice but bland boyfriend and surrender her passion for ornithology and learning to the demands of keeping house. Everything is not as she dreams, however. The watchful eye of her aunt cum chaperone compels Garnet to seek independence and excitement where she can, in a new job and a clandestine friendship with a flapper who makes life just a little brighter and Garnet herself a little more bold. But Garnet cannot escape the looming shadow of fall, and before the summer wanes, she will be forced to face challenging dilemmas about identity, loyalty, and what it means to do the right thing.

Garnet is such a charming protagonist, guys. I love her bookishness, her independent streak, her loyalty to the people she loves, her sense of self, her willingness to take a chance, and, of course, the silhouettes of birds she cuts out of fabric for fun. The 1920’s setting – featuring the requisite flappers and dance houses and bootleg liquor, despite taking place in the countryside – is always fun, and Griffin uses it to its best advantage, painting its trappings as quintessentially embodying the vivacious and rebellious spirit of youth. Though the 1920's may seem like an obvious setting for this kind of story (for the very reason of its devil-may-care metaphorical resonance with young adulthood), details like Garnet's interest in ornithology keep it quirky and fresh. The amusement park was a fun addition, too, being something new and controversial that we take for granted as being universally accepted and approved of today. I like how Griffin tackles GLBT themes without making them The Issue, rather weaving them as one thread into the complex web of identity discovery that takes place at Garnet’s age; it comes across as a forward-thinking lesson to be learned from a book that takes place almost a century ago. And, indeed, that’s one of the things that ultimately makes Silhouette of a Sparrow so compelling – the way Griffin crafts a tale as rooted in its historical setting as it is resonant with contemporary adolescents. That, to me, is the beauty of historical fiction at its best, when it connects the past with the present and reminds us how little we have really changed.

Books Read This Year: 19
Top 100 Progress: 50/100